Gentlemen of the Road
By Michael Chabon, with illustrations by Gary Gianni. Bond Street Books/Doubleday Canada, 204 pp, $29.95, hardcover
Love Over Scotland
By Alexander McCall Smith, with illustrations by Iain McIntosh. Vintage Canada, 357 pp, $21, softcover
Apparently, newspapers are dead, or at least dying. But nobody seems to have told two of English literature's more accomplished novelists: Michael Chabon, American recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay); and Scottish humourist Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series). Both have recently had vigorous novels published in serialized form in daily newspapers (the New York Times and the Scotsman, respectively), and a read of these works, published in bound book form, suggests that both newspapers and the oft-lamented novel itself still have some life left in them.
Serialized fiction reached its acme with Charles Dickens, whose prodigious output meant his writing was in near-continuous publication in the magazines of his day. He set the bar for newspaper novelists to come. His content and style are both instructive to the serialist: his stories succeeded in the popular press for three decades because he dwelt so lavishly, even in a few sentences, on character; he worked comedy and satire into even the most troubling scenes; and his fiction advanced a strong moral viewpoint. His contemporaries might not have agreed with his beliefs, but they could apprehend his point quickly and return to the story after days or weeks to pick up with the next installment.
Chabon and McCall Smith, our modern-day Dickenses (and by no means are they the only ones; in 2005, for one example, Edmonton's Todd Babiak published 100 chapters of The Garneau Block in the Edmonton Journal), inherit different strands of Dickens's craft. Chabon's work to date has been naturalistic, urban, New Yorker–y. Here, he explains in an afterword (but why does he feel the need?), "you catch me in the act of trying, as a writer, to do what many of my characters”¦were trying, longing, ready to do: I have gone off in search of a little adventure."
The story–a 10th-century picaresque tale of highwaymen with a conscience; a Dark Ages Pulp Fiction, if you will–relates some of the unlikely, ripping escapades of the phlegmatic Muslim giant Amram and the moody Jewish ninja/surgeon Zelikman as they make their way down life's road. The politics around the Caspian Sea where they try to make a ducat are Byzantine (literally), and it's not Dickens's way with a character that's evoked but his gleeful use of coincidence to nudge plot and his even more gleeful belief that plot will see you through”¦until next week.
In book form, unlike newsprint, a turn of the page is enough to assuage the tenterhooks. Tension here comes not from Chabon's long-standing thematic concerns (fathers and sons, Jews in exile), but from his heightened language. Plus a kind of wacky existential humour, í la Thomas Pynchon. "I don't save lives," Zelikman tells someone. "I just prolong their futility."
Where Chabon is all thesauruses and Silk Road merchant maps, McCall Smith falls squarely into the Dickens mode of closely observed, deftly delivered character. Zelikman and Amram are ciphers, placeholders for the writer's erudition and hunger for adventure. The denizens of Scotland Street, however, are as vital as can be. This is McCall Smith's third collection of the daily doings of this Edinburgh neighbourhood, and it's neither better nor worse than its predecessors (nor should it be). It's more, and more is what we want. More of the endlessly patient, bossed-around preschool genius Bertie; more of the kindhearted but dense Angus Lordie and his beer-drinking dog Cyril; more of those characters–Bertie's father Stuart, say, or the independently wealthy, neurotic gallery owner Matthew and his on-the-verge-of-self-confidence employee Pat–who aren't quite living happy lives but might yet find contentment.
Edinburgh itself is a character in these stories, as London so often was for Dickens, but the central setting is the human heart, whose virtues the gentle McCall Smith never tires of extolling. "It's very easy, isn't it?" one character remarks near the novel's close. "To increase the sum total of human happiness. By these little acts. Small things."
Chabon and McCall Smith make it seem easy, anyway.